by Liam Scheff
11 of 15×15
“And what’ll we do for water?” Jolie stands frozen in place, her eyes shocked open, tears forming on a thin sheen of burning dry heat that she feels all over her eyes, that she started complaining about 18 months ago, that everyone told her to ignore, that the allergy doctor said was tomatoes, then corn, then wheat.
It hadn’t always been this way. Once they were a couple, she wasn’t as fat. She was almost appealing, from certain angles, in certain dresses. And Dale loved her, her natural roundness, and she loved him for loving her, and for being hard-working and good, and not drinking too much. It hadn’t always been this way. It had been… what was the word? Natural. Yes, but, something else. Uncomplicated.
Well, never entirely, not with her father and his mother, and the beer and whiskey they pulled down between them. They had to be separated at parties, seated apart at the wedding. The father of the bride, the mother of the groom, getting on all too well, bonding over booze, and a penchant for self-destructiveness that had infected most of their children. But not Jolie, and not Dale. They had taken the shocks and risen above the morass; they had done so through humility and determination, and a willingness to try, and try again.
And then the Company came to visit. There had always been companies. There were Dow and Monsanto down the road in the Twin Cities, but they’d left this little tract of family farms alone. This hundred acres of huddled cul-de-sac of family farms – Dale, Jolie, her brother and his, growing squash and pumpkin and corn and tomatoes, and two kinds of wheat – all heirloom plants, handed down through generations, surviving the dust-bowl, never buying into chemical progress.
They did it for 60 years without a national distributor, but then one came calling. A small organics firm that promised to “partner with the farmer” and still get the beautiful blue and yellow-red corn into the mouths of Manhattanites.
“New York,” said Jolie, in unmistakeable awe. “I’ve never even been there…but our farm will be.” She said it with rising pride in her voice, and Theresa, the New Organic’s representative, smiled and beamed. It was the moment they’d talk about at headquarters in Connecticut. ‘We’ll be in New York! The Big Apple!’ It was the line she’d been told to look for, the one she hoped she would hear.
When Jolie mouthed the words, Dale looked at her, and she at him. She’d never even thought of New York City. It had no appeal to her, nowhere in her bones. She loved Chicago for Blues and ribs and New Orleans for everything else, and she never wanted to be East of either.
It’s not that she was lying; she just didn’t know why she said it. But she had said it, and now Theresa seemed to feel they were interested. Distribution nation-wide for this medium-small heirloom organics farm. “It doesn’t have to impact normal production or rotation at all,” Theresa explained.
“What doesn’t?” asked Dale, thinking he’d missed something.
“Well, again, in exchange for distribution, you give us a percentage of revenue – and you lease us a percentage of your fallow fields as ‘test acreage’ for New Organic’s new organic techniques.”
That was Theresa’s joke, repeating the name twice, to pound it in. “This is the NEW organic,” she said, with emphasis. “We can increase yields and keep the organic standard, without using round-up, without using 2,4-D.”
“But, how,” asked Dale, feeling deep disbelief creep into his thoughts. How do you increase production, he thought, but his mind was stuck somewhere else. It was making a pie-chart the check, $240,000 dollars. Just to let someone else carry his produce to Whole Foods and Vons, and Hannaford and Trader Joe’s, for 10% of the revenue.
Ten percent of annual revenue in some years wouldn’t have been 8,000 dollars. 5,000 in slow years; that’s before the expenses ate half. And it’s dipped below that, but they’ve never been bust, not a single year, because they’ve always had the local towns. But they’d never had $240,000 dollars.
“But, how? How do you increase production,” he looked at the pie chart, “What’s this, 28%? In a year? Is it fish emulsion? You have to be careful with that, since Fukushima,” he warned.
“It’s not fish emulsion,” said Theresa, “It’s proprietary.”
Jolie and Dale sat up a little straighter, as though they’d been let in on a secret and were being asked to keep it. Theresa saw them respond as inexperienced people do to the announcement of a corporate secret.
Her training had taught her this: most people are generally good, and will generally keep a secret, at least within a small circle of gossip. They won’t become corporate insider traders. They don’t have the reach or the chutzpah – the guts. They’ll just feel privileged to know that they’re in on a secret. They don’t even have to know what the secret is. This is how you play middle America.
But I’m not playing anyone, Theresa told herself. This was a genuine offer, and families like the Arnotts deserved a chance to participate in a larger marketplace. This was the language her mind had been programmed with – “participate,” not “sell out to.” “Larger marketplace,” not “psychotic corporate machine culture.”
Theresa wasn’t part of that. New Organic had been a small company when she was hired. She’d help them grow three-fold in five years of hard work – flying, driving, taking buses and trains and rental cars all over the country, to the hinterlands, the hold-outs, the isolated pieces of farmland that hadn’t buckled to Monsanto.
And now, they could be protected – as they were given the tools to grow. This was Theresa’s programming. And some part of her garrulous verbal mind believed it, like an actor believes his lines, like an actress believes she’s sad when she’s crying in front of an audience, like a TV talk show hostess believes she likes the food she is eating on camera.
“It’s proprietary. But, I can tell you that it’s entirely algae-based. I can’t give more than that – but it’s all plant-based.” She paused, waiting for their minds to form an objection. But it’s our land, and we have to know what we’re putting on it, was what they would say. Before they can ask it, she continues the script:
“An innovation in enriching the soil with natural algae, the kind that grows in ponds or lakes, that our scientists have developed a new dispersal pattern for, and have isolated key nutritional components that help plants thrive, naturally, without toxic petroleum products. This is a replacement for anhydrous ammonia.” She says this looking at Dale, then at Jolie, feeding them the line they want to hear:
“This is the new organic. It is not a petroleum product, and it is not, nor will ever be glyphosate or Monsanto.”
“Could we…” asks Jolie, as if prompted, as if a line were being fed to her by some part of her mind that she didn’t even know existed, “try,” she says, looking at Dale, then at Theresa, “a test field, for a season?”
Dale breathes in, holds it for second, breathes out.
Theresa gives them binder, glossy, filled with photos of clover, corn, wheat, barley, squash, pumpkin, tomato and ten other plants, with pictures of farmers, with photos, graphs and diagrams of sprouts, seedlings, young plants, mature plants, harvested plants and clumps of soil.
“We’ve done all of this already,” Theresa says. “We wouldn’t have approached you with anything we weren’t already confident about. We’re using the process at 75 small farms nationwide, and 40 in Europe. And it’s working.”
Theresa hears herself say this, and she believes it. It is working. She’s seen the yields. Twenty-five percent increase, with better nitrogen and phosphorous ratios in soil both before and after harvest. Forty percent better yields at two farms in arid country in New Mexico and four in inland California.
“Forty percent increase in yields,” she says. “I’ve seen farms, using their traditional methods – fish emulsion, crop rotation…” Dale perks up, she’s speaking his language. Jolie hears her mouthing the terms and wonders very quietly if she knows it from a book, or a conversation, or from the work itself, but the question splinters into dust in her mind before she can form it.
“The algae treatment doesn’t interfere, it only helps soil retain nitrogen and phosphorous. The ‘how’ is a trade secret – but you can witness the results easily.” She pats the thick, glossy binder again. “It’s in here.” She opens it to the back, “and here,” she points to a DVD tucked into a clear pocket, “you can actually witness it. We’ve got time-lapse comparisons, farmer interviews, everything you need to do research.”
Two hours later, after cookies and cake and coffee, she was gone, back to the rental car, to the town, to the train, to the plane. But her parting words pinged like pinballs against the electrified bumpers of Jolie and Dale’s minds: “But, I wouldn’t expect you to make up your mind on the spot. Take your time. Watch the videos. You need time to consider it.”
Such a reasonable approach, thought Jolie. “Not pushy or desperate. I appreciated that,” she said quietly, as though still being polite in the presence of company.
It’s something they teach in university business classes about outreach to uninitiated communities: the medium is the message. “Your behavior is what they’ll remember — they’ll forget most of the details, but they’ll remember your actions.” It was pounded into Theresa hard in by her business development professor. She never forgot it. She truly wanted to be good – for the company, to the people she was interacting with. She wanted to be sincere, reasonable, likable, and to help everyone grow.
And Dale and Jolie did like her, or, they didn’t hate her, which was something new for an agribusiness representative. But, what was the deal?
“What do we have to do?” asked Jolie, trying to remember what had been said.
“I don’t know, exactly,” said Dale. “They’ll carry our…” he struggled with the word, “product.” Jolie wrinkled her nose and laughed. “And we use their fertilizer.”
“And algae? Is that…seaweed?” asked Jolie. “We use that already.”
Dale thumbed through the file. His eyes rested on photographs of happy farmers holding large, healthy winter squash, then summer tomatoes, and fall corn. Speckled corn, like his own, and variegated heirloom squash. “Proprietary,” he said. “Their seaweed is proprietary.”
The questions went around: “What does that mean? I guess… they own that variety? Did she say 240,000 dollars? To let them sell our crops? What should we do? Should we? What if we change our minds? What if it works?”
Dale stops, opens the refrigerator and pulls out two beers. He opens them both. “Well, let’s celebrate either way,” Jolie takes the beer and takes a sip. “They’re a big company, they like our produce and…that’s something.”
Two-hundred forty thousand dollars is a lot of money. One failing tractor transmission, one car accident in town with a dented door and a fright (but nothing more, thank goodness), and one broken tooth for a kid climbing a fence on the way to fishing – all in two weeks – and two-hundred forty thousand dollars seemed to be crying out for reasonable minds to accept it. And it was just seaweed, proprietary or not.
Three years later, Jolie couldn’t breathe. She only felt better when she went to the city, away from the farm. Her skin was red, her eyes were burning and nose running constantly. They knew it was the algae, despite what the company told them. The algae – not seaweed at all – whatever was in that sticky stinking mess. It did increase yields in the first year, but not in the second, and not in the third. But it was everywhere. They couldn’t get it out of the soil. You had to dry a field entirely to stop it from being “bio-active.”
Jolie was crying. Dale told her that they’d just go back to the way it was – organic farming the way they’d always done it. But the algae had run into the lake where they drew their irrigation water, and bloomed.
“And what’ll we do for water?” Jolie stood frozen in place, her eyes shocked open, tears forming on a thin sheen of burning that she felt all over her eyes, that she’d complained about 18 months ago, that everyone told her to ignore, that the allergy doctor said was tomatoes, then corn, then wheat.
But wasn’t. It was the patented product that was “changing the way organic farming is done.” And it did. It made the soil a patented product. And now the company wanted payment for a violation of their intellectual property rights. Because the lake, which they used to irrigate their farm, had allowed the algae – not dead at all – to bloom.
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This is Story 11 in 15×15. A story written and edited in one to two hours with no major revisions.